Silence and Song

Childhood, an early short film by Terence Davies, tells the story of Robert Tucker in two phases: as a boy growing up in an unhappy family in Liverpool and as a young man who has just barely survived it. The best thing in the movie is a long scene on a bus. It begins as a flashback. Robert Tucker, as a young man, has just visited a doctor who has prescribed him medication for depression and has asked whether he’s developed any interest in girls yet. He hasn’t. He walks to a bus stop, where a couple of young women titter at his doleful looks, and before the bus comes, there is a flashback: Robert, as a boy, is boarding a double-decker bus with his mother.

“Can we sit inside?” the boy asks. This tells us something about the boy; he’s the sort who thinks it’s more of a treat to sit inside a double-decker than on top. The boy’s mother is played by a woman with attractive features but hollow eyes. The two sit down, he in a window seat, she in an aisle seat beside him so that she is closer to the camera, and the bus pulls away. They don’t say anything further; they don’t look at each other. She stares at the middle distance. He watches the streets of Liverpool pass by. The camera stays on them. Rows of workers’ housing roll past; a corner is turned; more rows of similar housing roll past. The camera still does not move. It begins to occur to the viewer that this is not a scene that sets up another scene, despite its apparent lack of event. After a long while, the mother quietly cries. The boy does not try to comfort her; the viewer senses that an “interaction” of any kind would be false. Mere presence is as much as the mother and the boy are able to give each other.

There are a number of parallels between Childhood and Davies’s later, full-length film The Long Day Closes. Both seem to be autobiographical. Both portray a boy who says “thank you” to school authorities when they whip him across the palm, who is awkward in the school swimming pool, who is set upon by bullies, and who will, we understand, grow up to be gay. Even the layout of the family home in both movies is the same. But The Long Day Closes is a warmer film—a film so full of love, in fact, that it’s almost painful to watch—and there are important differences. It’s in color, for one thing, and it has a sense of humor, for another, complete with Dickensian minor characters such as a plethoric, henpecked husband who does flawless impressions of Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. In the later movie, the parallel to the Childhood bus scene takes place at home. The hero, a young boy named Bud, is sitting beside his mother. Their faces are lit by a fire, not visible. She sings a song while looking into it. As with many of the songs in the movie, the gender of its persona conflicts with that of the singer, and so the mother explains, when she finishes, that it was her father’s song—he used to sing it to her when she was a girl. She begins to cry as she explains this, and the boy, though he seems to be listening intently, continues to stare straight ahead into the fire, almost as if he doesn’t notice her grief. There is no need for him to notice it, we sense; he is at one with her; he feels her sorrow as if it were his own, because the song and her touch have communicated it to him, and have also communicated the strength and the beauty that he will need in order to bear it. In Childhood nothing was in the place of song. Literally nothing: it was through silence and the absence of touch that Robert’s mother communicated to him.

Silence and song are not so different. The matter of both is time; neither is intelligible unless you can hear rhythm. In watching Childhood the viewer has the sense that what was communicated was so sad, so heartbreaking that it could do violence to Robert. It hurt him as a boy, and it might kill him as a young adult, in the form of a depression he can’t understand. What’s shared is just as sad in The Long Day Closes. Perhaps it’s even sadder. The trouble in Childhood, after all, seems to be that love is sometimes met by cruelty, and the trouble in The Long Day Closes is that those we love, and who love us, will in time die. But Bud is able to bear the greater grief in The Long Day Closes because his mother’s sorrow comes to him as part of the company she offers. It is a further sweetness. And so Bud does not grow up to be a fragile or a brittle man. He grows up to be the maker of the film The Long Day Closes, whose presence is so palpable in the film that he should perhaps be thought of as a character in it.

Almost every detail in the movie reminds the viewer that he is watching a movie not life. The rain—and there is a lot of rain—is always movie rain. When at Christmastime the camera pans slowly away from a family tableau into the darkness down the street, the darkness is streaked with not real snow but movie snow, meteoric and fanciful. When Bud daydreams in class of a ship in a storm, and we see the ship, it is patently a model ship, photographed in close-up. None of this artifice lessens the movie. It is a kind of understatement. It is part of the director’s way of speaking: It was like this, but of course all I can show you is a movie.

He communicates to us not with spectacle, that is, but the way his mother communicated to him, through silence and song. The silence has become famous. There is a long scene in The Long Day Closes when the camera rests on a carpet while sunlight shifts there. When I first saw the movie, in 1993, this scene frightened me. I remember worrying whether the friends beside me would grow impatient. They had brought me to the movie, but I was falling in love with it, and the scene made me worry that I would need to protect the movie from them. It made me feel how attached I was to it. It made me realize that I didn’t mind sitting with it for a long time while nothing appeared to happen. The scene is a little like staring out the bus window while your mother is crying beside you and you are trying to allow her her privacy. And it is a little like noticing how beautiful even the most trivial and casual thing is, once love has attached you to the world it is a part of. To some it will seem like poverty, and to others, like enormous wealth.

Sun shifting on a carpet: light moving on a screen. When the camera at last rises from the carpet, it goes to Bud, kneeling in the sill of a window so that he can stare through it, the lace curtain draped over him like some kind of ritual vestment. It is largely by looking through windows that Bud turns life into a movie that he is watching. Sometimes the window is open and the sun is shining, as when he watches a shirtless bricklayer, who winks and embarrasses him. (In Childhood and its two sequels, Robert’s sexuality was sometimes a heavy-handed matter, and its punishments were sometimes melodramatic. In The Long Day Closes, in contrast, the workman’s wink is the only direct acknowledgment.) Sometimes rain is streaming down the window’s glass, softening the light, rendering it more complex, as if the glass had come alive. Rain also destroys, however. In geology class, Bud learns about erosion, and from David Lean’s Miss Havisham, whose words come to Bud after a friend betrays him by going to the movies with another boy, he learns that decay is the fate of those who can’t find love. In the very first scene of the movie, for that matter, we see under rain the ruins of the world we are about to enter. It existed in time only, not in eternity. It existed in silence and in song. Bud’s mother sang about the loss of her father to him, but Bud will have no children to whom he can sing the loss of his mother and the world he shared with her. Instead there is just a movie, radiating outward like the flashlight that Bud shines into the sky one night, after being told in school that such a light will go on forever, and which Bud turns, finally, into the lens of the camera, canceling it.